Blame Italian Olive Bugs for Year’s Dearth of Virgin Oil

Every autumn, Fabio Landini lines up with other olive growers at a mill in Tuscany, Italy, where traditional stone presses crush the oil from his crop. This season, he didn’t get a single drop.

A fruit fly infestation has ravaged orchards across Italy, the world’s top producer of olive oil after Spain. In a country where ancient Romans coated themselves in olive oil and modern residents use it to dip bread or make pasta sauce, output may drop 35 percent this year, according to the Rome-based Institute of Services for Agriculture and Food Markets, or Ismea.

“We didn’t harvest,” said Landini, a retired investment banker, who gets about 150 liters of oil from his grove of 80 trees in a typical year. “The few olives we had were affected by the olive fly, full of grubs.”

Crop damage in Italy and a weak harvest from Spain mean global production in the season through September 2015 will be the smallest in 15 years, the International Olive Council said Dec. 2. At a time when global food costs are dropping, olive-oil prices are surging for Italian consumers mired in a three-year recession, as well as for major importers including the U.S., where consumption has tripled in the past two decades.

“People will pay more,” said Michael Bradley, president of Oakland, California-based Veronica Foods Co., which imports more than 1 million gallons a year.

‘Oil Crisis’

Intermediate-quality virgin olive oil from Spain, an industry benchmark, may reach 3.20 euros ($3.96) a kilogram in the next two to three months, Bradley said, an increase of about 65 percent from this week.

The effect is already being felt by Laura Bevilacqua, who runs a farm and restaurant in Palombara Sabina, Italy. While she usually produces enough of her own oil for use in her kitchen and to sell a few bottles, she was forced to buy it this year. The restaurant hasn’t raised prices because diners are less willing to spend in a shrinking economy, she said.

“This olive-oil crisis is really knocking us out,” Bevilacqua said.

Olives trees, which can produce fruit for hundreds of years, are harvested in Italy from September through January. The average household in the country uses about 34 liters of the oil a year, or 9 gallons, according to data compiled by Bloomberg from Rabobank and the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development.

Top-Grade

Prices for Italian top-grade extra virgin oil touched a record in November and are up 46 percent at the mill in the past two months to 6,308 euros a metric ton. Spanish intermediate-quality virgin oil has risen 61 percent from a low in May to 2,764 euros a ton.

“Some consumers will ration olive oil and switch to others, in particular, sunflower oil,” according to Vito Martielli, an oilseed analyst at Rabobank in Utrecht, Netherlands.

Prices for olive oil are surging at a time when global food costs are the lowest in four years, including cooking oils made from crops. Global harvests of soybeans, oil palm, rapeseed and sunflower seeds have touched all-time highs in recent seasons, boosting output of vegetable oils to records this year, U.S. Department of Agriculture data show. Soybean-oil futures on the Chicago Board of Trade have tumbled 21 percent from a year earlier, touching a five-year low this week. The contracts slid 0.8 percent to 31.7 cents a pound today.

Weather, Disease

For olive oil, Spain’s output is forecast to drop to 750,000 tons from last year’s record of 1.78 million tons, after the crop was hurt by hot weather and disease, according to an association of young Spanish farmers, known as Asaja. In Italy, production may fall to 302,470 tons, compared with 463,701 tons in 2013, according to Ismea.

While Italy and Spain are generating less, production is booming in Greece and Tunisia, the third- and fourth-biggest growers. Trees in Greece will probably yield 300,000 tons of olives, up 127 percent from last year, and Tunisia may see output almost quadruple to 260,000 tons, according to the International Olive Council.

That won’t be enough to prevent a decline in the Mediterranean region, which accounts for 97 percent of world production. Combined output for Spain, Italy, Greece and Tunisia probably will slump 31 percent to 1.69 million tons, the group said on Dec. 2.

Greek Olives

“This year creates an opportunity for Greek olive oil,” Aris Kefalogiannis, the chief executive officer of Athens-based Gaea Products SA, a local food marketer that gets half its sales from olive oil. “We do expect an increase in exports.”

The outlook is dimmer for Stefano Barbarossa, who has a grove of 1,000 trees in Sabina, Italy, and lost about 80 percent of olive-oil production this year. He says he has none to sell and faces as much as 30,000 euros in lost income.

“My father, my grandparents say they have never seen something like this,” Barbarossa said in an interview at the mill in central Italy. “Usually, this time of year, we wouldn’t be able to get into this oil mill because of the crowd, the tractors, and people coming to press their olives. Now, as you can see, it’s all dead.”

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